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NONFICTION : ULTERIOR MOTIVES: THE KILLING AND DARK LEGACY OF TYCOON HENRY KYLE by Suzanne Finstead (Morrow: $18.95; 384 pp.).

September 20, 1987|Mark Schorr

In the middle of the night, father and son, both with loaded pistols, go after a prowler in their Bel-Air mansion. Shots are fired. The father lies dead, the son wounded in the elbow. After a high-publicity investigation, the son is charged with murder. Following lengthy court proceedings, he is convicted of involuntary manslaughter.

It might be not much more than a routine drama, except for the victim. His name was Henry Kyle, and he's the sort of larger-than-life character that populates fast-reading novels.

Born in a three-room dirt-floor shack in Tennessee, he amassed a $22.5-million fortune in his 60 years. Along the way, he became a Marine fighter pilot ace, wooed beauty queens and lived the kind of macho life that led friends to liken him to John Wayne. He also abused women and his children, and did sleazy things to build his oil-and-real-estate fortune that would have made J. R. Ewing proud.

For as long as the book is focused on Henry Kyle, about 100 pages or so, it is fascinating and compelling reading. Unfortunately, it then becomes little more than edited trial transcripts. The rules of evidence in a courtroom do not constitute exciting narrative; cross-examination too often makes for confusing dialogue.

For a reader who enjoys courtroom drama, however, the book can be recommended. The only thing missing is the hard wooden benches.

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